Women Wage Peace

WHY WOMEN AND WHY NOW? \ Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum, member of Women Wage Peace

a two-part answer written about 10 months after the 2014 Gaza War/Operation Protective Edge

An urgent need for different language. Beginning in the 1980s, conversations about moral development began to change dramatically thanks to psychologist Carol Gilligan. If you’re wondering just how significant this change really could have been, consider that by the mid-1990’s, Time Magazine had named Gilligan one of the 25 most influential Americans ever. In contrast to the prevailing ethic of justice and its central question in the face of a moral dilemma, What is just? Gilligan had identified an ethic of care with a different question at its core, How to respond? Lately, though, Gilligan has been thinking about the urgent need to liberate democracy from patriarchy (alright, roll your eyes here, but only for a second; for Gilligan, liberation from patriarchy is not about liberating women from men but rather about liberating us all). She writes, “The ethic of care, in its concern with voice and relationship, is the ethic of love and of democratic citizenship.” She defines democracy as a political system in which all humans are “responsive, relational beings, born with a voice and with the desire to live in relationships, along with the capacity to spot false authority. Democracy rests on the presumption of equal voice.” In contrast, patriarchy seems to exalt the autonomous individual, but privileges some individuals – males – over females and then certain males over other males, with one pater [father] above all. But in fact, patriarchy does not exalt the individual, it isolates him. In extremist movements gripping the Middle East – all patriarchal, by this definition – abnegation of selfhood has itself become a holy task. Yet “because patriarchy is based on a denial of the self, it is inherently unstable,” says Gilligan, “and so always has to defend itself.”

Prof. Gilligan at the Knesset (Israel Parliament), May 2017
Gilligan gives a name to losing one’s authentic voice and of dissociating from what we know deep down to be true about life – that it is interdependent and always has an emotional component – calling such a process of loss an ‘initiation’ into patriarchal society.  According to her research, girls tend to resist this initiation longer than boys, often by ten years or so. Thus girls generally have more time to establish both a richer vocabulary and a better-developed internal foundation for an authentic voice before it is lost to the demands of patriarchy. Yet clearly democracy fits the tenor of our times, not patriarchy. And clearly it’s no wonder that our movement attracts women who wish to speak out about a political agreement with the Palestinians (and do so by building mutually supportive relationships with other women). We are women who believe that our voices deserve to be heard and that a richly democratic culture could and should flourish here.  Although our movement has been criticized for being leftist (or not leftist enough) or naive or elitist, I am confident that we can answer these charges, especially if we take Gilligan’s advice: learn to listen to the conversation under the conversation. That is, learn to identify a speaker’s authentic voice often buried under the highly-scripted one learned in a patriarchal culture that expects both men and women to lose ‘’their basic capacity to relate.” Gilligan also teaches us that patriarchy persists because it offers the alluring, if ultimately undeliverable, promise that it can defend us against loss by legitimizing the rupture  of our most intimate relationships.
Indeed we members of Nashim Osot Shalom can be regarded as resisting initiation into a culture that seems bent on denying interdependency, and therefore on denying the risk of loss, although both interdependency and loss are facts of human life. We resist living in such a confining culture,  for our own sakes as well as for the sake of future generations. We are united in our desire to balance the use of language that is protective, rational and delineating with language that is more relational, emotional, and non-hierarchical. Each day we attract more and more women who are not embarrassed or afraid to use this other language, even in the public sphere. (Relational language is at least as old as a foundational Jewish concept, brit, characterized by an often fraught human-divine partnership, unequal in the distribution of power but putatively equal in love).
An urgent need for expectations of normalcy. The second half of my answer to why Israeli women must work together now, as a group, toward a diplomatic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to do with something that most of the world’s women have shared. This is the experience of making something from nothing or next-to-nothing – that is, the lived experience of nurturing, which may or may not come from being pregnant or feeding a child with one’s own milk or raising young children.  Indeed, caring need not be coupled to the biological ability to live the experience of reproducing the species, but rather can be related to the long history of women as custodians-of-connection in patriarchal societies.  Currently, the particular something-from-next-to-nothing that we Israeli women must nurture is a national expectation of normalcy.  I’ve been searching for the right Hebrew word for normalcy. There’s takinut, but its meaning is closer to ‘appropriateness’; normali’ut, merely a loan word from the Romance languages; and shfi’ut – sanity. There’s shigra, but shigra refers to the routines of daily life. To take a recent example: after the Gaza War last summer, Israelis quickly returned to routine life but not to normalcy. Normalcy is getting into a car, bus, or train and knowing where one’s country physically begins and ends. It is living one’s daily life without waiting anxiously for the sound of a siren to turn into a full-fledged wail, warning of an incoming rocket. Normalcy is acknowledging that we share, with other human beings, an international dialing code, not to mention aquifers and other features of an ecosystem that doesn’t care about how humans divide it up. There’s precious little expectation that life here could be normal. But fortunately, women have a lived sense of how to make something from next to nothing. Drawing on this experience, we must create expectations of normalcy despite the relatively barren context at hand.
Many women in our movement have already devoted themselves to the how of achieving a normal life, working through, not around, the pain of our current situation, one human connection after another. Being a rabbi, I tend to think of these inspiring initiatives as contemporary reflections of an ancient Jewish story. Remember how the distraught mother of Moses fashions a tiny ark out of the most common of materials – reeds growing along the Nile and a little tar and pitch to make the basket waterproof – and then sets it by the riverbank with her precious son inside it? She chooses to act despite legitimate fear and suspicion borne out by the history of her people and the realities of her own life under a tyrant who deeply desires her people’s destruction. Her use of conventional raw material in an unconventional way illustrates, for me, Martin Buber’s observation that “behind every prediction of disaster lies a concealed alternative.”  One could also dwell on the story’s use of irony – an Egyptian princess, after all, saves the life of Moses and thus contributes to the rescue of his people.  But we in Women Wage Peace have other urgent work to do, creating new language and creating expectations of normalcy despite our having so little with which to work.  And with the winds of war still hovering, we must do so chik-chak – right away.        


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